Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue listens as President Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 17. A union representative said USDA leaders do not appear to understand the reality of working from home with children.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue listens as President Trump speaks about the coronavirus on April 17. A union representative said USDA leaders do not appear to understand the reality of working from home with children. Alex Brandon / AP

USDA Resists Providing Extra Flexibilities During the Pandemic for Forest Service Employees with Children

U.S. Forest Service workers said they are burning through personal leave juggling telework and child care, but that their agency has declined to provide additional time off as others have done.

U.S. Forest Service employees said Friday that the Agriculture Department has been effectively blocking the agency from providing paid administrative leave to teleworking employees who are juggling agency business and caring for a child, despite the fact that the practice has been authorized by the Trump administration.

Employees at the Forest Service largely have been working remotely since the coronavirus outbreak began, except for those involved in what the agency considers essential functions like firefighting, law enforcement and timber sales. But performing a full work week has still been a struggle for employees with children, many of whom report that they have been burning through annual leave when they can’t reach 40 hours a week on the job.

“Unlike many agencies, USDA’s policy has always been that if your dependents are in the house with you, you can still telework, so long as your timesheet accurately reflects the amount of time you spent working vs. the amount of time you spent caring for them,” said Melissa Baumann, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council. “The issue is really just the number of hours in a week and whether you can actually physically get things done.”

Some agencies, like the Interior and State departments, have sought to combat this quandary by offering teleworking employees with children at home 10 hours per week of paid administrative leave. But Baumann said she has been repeatedly rejected when she brings up those policies with Forest Service management, something she thinks is driven by leadership at USDA.

“We have a good relationship with our managers, and I raised this as an issue, with the understanding that [the Office of Personnel Management] has provided specific guidance on being able to do this and [the Interior Department] is now doing it,” Baumann said. “But every time I bring it up, I get told about how you can flex your time [to perform work during non-business hours]. Now that’s nice, but that doesn’t make there be more hours in a day. One employee I spoke to has a special needs child, and she said, ‘I was up until 8 [p.m.] helping with homework. When can I work? How can I possibly get this done?’”

Baumann said her union conducted a survey of bargaining unit workers, and found that although employees without children rated how they were “coping” with full-time telework as a 3.6 out of 5, that number fell to 2.4 for those with children. Employees with children reported taking an average  of 15 hours of personal leave per two-week pay period for the purpose of child care.

A USDA spokesperson seemed to confirm to Government Executive that the department's policy is not to provide additional leave to teleworking employees with children, suggesting it would be unfair to do so while other employees at the department have essential or otherwise nonportable jobs.

“In assessing the flexibilities that USDA provides its employees that can telework from home, USDA must also consider the fairness to our front-line workforce who must work 40 hours (or more) a week on-site but also are faced with the same challenges of closed schools and day care centers,” the spokesperson said. “[OPM] guidance has indicated agencies should maximize telework to the fullest extent possible. USDA is following that direction. USDA has provided its agencies a variety of flexibilities to support employees to include allowing employees to adjust or stagger work schedules, completing work over six days (Monday through Saturday), using leave, taking leave without pay and changing to part-time work schedules.”

Baumann said the department’s mantra of remaining “Open for Business” also irks employees struggling to fulfill both their professional and family obligations.

“Part of it has been the messaging from USDA . . . A week or two ago, [Secretary Sonny Perdue] talked about how an employee built a shed at the edge of their property because they couldn’t get wifi in their home,” she said. “That’s what’s making us crazy: the complete blindness to the reality of what it is to try to work at home with your children in rural America where your internet might not be that good anyway.”